Paul’s gospel, like his theology, is God-centered. God is magnified and manifested in His Son. God and Christ work together. “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Cor. 8:6, NASB). This verse powerfully affirms the equality of essence of God the Father and the Son of God. The gospel according to Paul is God-centered and Christ-centered. This is the gospel he preached to the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).
Theme of Paul’s Message: The Unknown God
The account of Paul’s address on the Areopagus is a masterpiece of cross-cultural gospel communication. Athens was the most important cultural center of the ancient Roman world. Here Paul delivered one of his justly celebrated speeches, an apologetic for Christianity. As Paul looked around the city, he found that the Athenians were very religious (Acts 17:22)1. Though most versions translate the Greek deisidaimonesterous as “very religious,” to Paul it was more “superstitious.” Among them was an altar dedicated to “an unknown God” (v. 23). In his evangelistic sermon Paul would speak to them concerning this God. Their superstitious religiosity was searching for a god, but Paul announced a revealed God. “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Paul offers a God made known, a God of specific and clear revelation. That which was unknown to them, Paul would be happy to explain.
The gospel always begins with God, and not with man. It is the gospel of God (Rom. 1:1; 1 Thess. 2:2, 8). “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel” (2 Tim. 2:8, NASB). The gospel is God-centered and Christ-centered. Beware of the man-centered gospel! It focuses on the fulfillment of our needs, desires, and dreams. It puts man at the center of the message. It is a therapeutic gospel. Shun it at all costs.
As an introduction Paul paid a compliment to his audience (17:22-23) and then he developed his theme (“The Unknown God”), presenting it to them in the following outline form:
God as Creator
Paul started his sermon with God. The only true and living God made the world and everything in it (v. 24). He is the personal Creator God, not some random, impersonal force of evolutionary process. God is transcendent—above, beyond, and independent of the physical universe that He made. God is the Source, Sovereign, and Sustainer of the universe and all it contains (v. 25).
What revolutionary words! This was a dramatic worldview to the Greeks. The Athenians had never heard of a God like Paul described. To the pagan mind, life is controlled by powers that cannot be known or named. It is all very vague, many unknowns troubling their minds, yet it is powerful enough to move them to make altars to appease the unknown.
God of History & Geography
God is not only the Creator of nature, but He is also the Creator of man and nations. He has made from one man every nation of men to dwell on the face of the earth (v. 26). Since He is the Creator of all humans, the distribution of humanity was a determination of God. God sovereignly determined where everyone fits in history and geography. He determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation (v. 26). Paul’s message “affirms the historicity of Adam, and the essential unity and dignity of the human race, leaving no basis for racial superiority.”2 God of heaven, earth, history, and geography. What an amazing God!
God of Plan and Purpose
In assigning the exact places and boundaries where nations should live was a benevolent plan of God. It was so that people would seek and find Him (v. 27). God is not far from each one of us. It is we who are far from Him. But God has a plan to find them and save them. All of God’s sovereign plans are designed to prompt people to seek Him so that they may find Him.
The concept of God’s nearness and interest in us, Paul backed up by quoting from some of the Greek poets with which his audience was familiar (v. 28). Paul teaches the truth that God is not only transcendent, but immanent—“he is present within and interacts with the world he has made. He exists outside of time and space yet is closer to you than your own breath. Since God is the sum total of all life, it is in getting to know him intimately that you truly come to know who you are and what you were created to be.”3 On the other hand, the gods of the Greeks were distant and detached from the world.
God as Father
All humans are God’s children by creation. Since He is our Creator, all humanity is the “offspring of God” (v. 28b, 29). The same sense is echoed in Mal.2:10: “Do we not all have one Father? Has not one God created us?”
God as Judge
Paul noted that until the full revelation of God came to the Gentiles, God overlooked sins which occurred from their ignorance of His will (v. 30; See Acts 14:16). Now their only appropriate response is to obey God’s command to repent of their sins so that God can grant them forgiveness. Repentance is important because God has fixed a day in which He will judge the world (v. 31). John Stott points out the three immutable facts Paul declared about this coming judgement. First, it will be universal; secondly, it will be righteous; thirdly, it will be definite, for already the day has been set and the judge has been appointed. And although the day has not yet been disclosed, the identity of the judge has been (Acts 10:42).4
Paul’s reference to the resurrection of the dead ignited a reaction among them. Immortality of the soul was a familiar idea to them. But the Greeks repudiated the idea of a bodily resurrection and personal judgment. “Paul dropped a bombshell into the concept of the universe: resurrection. The Epicureans and Stoics couldn’t agree on many points, but they both declared the idea of resurrection absurd.”5
God as Savior
Paul had reached the climax of his message when he presented Jesus Christ as the resurrected Judge, and the need for repentance. It is my feeling that there is more to this sermon. Paul was probably interrupted at this point. He presented a God-centered worldview before them and the need for salvation through the resurrected Christ.
The magnificent Athenian address of the great evangelist did not bring in boatloads of converts. His reception by the polytheistic Greek philosophers was largely scornful, but a few believed (Acts 17:32-34).
Points To Ponder
What a great lesson for all who proclaim the glorious gospel of Christ: Don’t worry about being successful; worry about being faithful. Present the God-centered gospel—a God revealed, and a Lord risen, a God who is Savior. In place of an unknown God, a God known. God is righteous, and Christ will judge the world. Today, God summons the world to turn to Him and be saved. Let us make sure that we present the God-centered gospel faithfully, accurately, and prayerfully. Then we must leave the results in His hands.
Cover photo: The ruins of the Parthenon, atop the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. What Paul would have had in view as he addressed his audience from Mars Hill, lower left.
1. “This was a carefully chosen word…Paul subtly implied that their deities were evil spirits or demons, not gods. Behind idols are demons.” (Acts, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament Edition, p. 403)
2. The Tony Evans Study Bible, p. 1297
4. The Message of Acts (The Bible Speaks Today Series), p. 288
5. Charles R. Swindoll, Acts, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary, p. 350